– Horace Greeley
Human Rights in Guatemala
Human rights in Guatemala has been and continues to be complex and challenging issue. From its pre-Columbian past up to the present day, Guatemala has witnessed ongoing discrimination and the abuse of human rights, primarily directed toward its indigenous Mayan population. This section of our website includes a brief history of human rights abuses in Guatemala plus links to articles and reports about the current human rights situation in the country. We also address the link between education and human rights, both from the perspective of how a human rights approach helps to establish a context for educational reform, and also how education is a positive and powerful way to increase awareness and respect for the rights of all people.
From Conquistadors to Cuadillos
Shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the Spanish Crown allowed the Spanish settlers to claim land equivalent to one day’s horse ride for each side of their claimed property. This claimed ownership not only included the land, but also any people living on the land, thus effectively establishing a system of slavery of the indigenous people.
With independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the new republic of Guatemala continued its exploitation and oppression of the indigenous population by forcing them off the most agriculturally productive land and into the less productive mountain highlands. This internal migration was combined with enforced labor systems similar to serfdom in medieval Europe. Added to these abuses, was the expropriation of large areas of communally owned Mayan land in the mountainous regions during the rapid expansion of the coffee industry in the latter half of the 19th century and the continued exclusion of indigenous peoples from access to education or political processes. (For further detail on these issues, please see our articles on Poverty in Guatemala and Coffee in Guatemala.)
Throughout the early 20th century, Guatemala was ruled by a series of cuadillos, dictators with strong ties to the military and and economic elite, which enacted and enforced a variety of labor laws that again drove indigenous peoples into forced labor for the large landowners and the government, and continued to systematically strip the Mayan population of its communally owned lands.
A Decade of Hope Leading to Bitter Disappointment
In 1944, Guatemala finally achieved its first democratic election and during the next ten years saw a series of legal and land reforms designed to improve the rights of workers, campesinos (farmers), and labor unions. Also passed was agrarian reform legislation which called for the purchase of land from large landowners to be distributed back to the indigenous farmers. This agrarian reform was vehemently opposed by the many of the economic elite as well as foreign (U.S.) corporations such as United Fruit, and ultimately led to a CIA backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. (An excellent summary of this period in Guatemala history can be found in the book, Bitter Fruit, by Schlesinger, Kinzer and Coatsworth.)
Bitter Fruit Book Cover
The Guatemalan Holocaust
The 1954 coup was seen by many as a setback in furthering human rights for the majority of people in Guatemala and eventually led to a prolonged civil war beginning in the early 1960’s and continuing until the signing of Peace Accords in 1996. At the peak of the conflict in the early 1980’s, counter-insurgency tactics employed by the Guatemalan military, with training and backing from the U.S. military, led to the massacre of over 600 indigenous villages, an estimated 200-250,000 people murdered or disappeared, and over 1.5 million people forced into exile. Guatemalans referred to this scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign as la escoba (the broom), because the army swept the country in a wave of terror. (Punishment for these crimes had yet to be fully addressed. In 2006, the United Nations established a joint commission with the Guatemalan government for the investigation and bringing to justice those individuals responsible for the massacres, but to date, only a handful of those involved have been accused and brought to trial.)
During this period, international sentiment began to turn against the Guatemalan government. This combined with declining tourist revenues and decreasing investment of foreign capital and foreign aid led the controlling elite to consider transitioning from a military-controlled government to one with greater civilian participation. In addition, the vastly outnumbered and out-gunned leftist guerrilla forces realized that there was no realistic chance for a military victory. These realities laid the groundwork for peace negotiations which eventually led to the development and signing of the Peace Accords in December of 1996, which called for the establishment of a number of human rights for women, children and indigenous peoples.
Since 1996, Guatemala has had national and local democratic elections every four years. Alvaro Colom, a moderate, left-of-center candidate of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party won the 2007 presidential election with major support coming from the rural areas of Guatemala. International observers generally considered the elections free and fair, but there were a number of politically motivated assassinations (27) at the local level.
The current government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, and as a result of the Peace Accords a number of laws exist to promote and protect human rights. However, even though civilian authorities have generally maintained control of the country’s security forces (army and police), there have been instances in which members of the security forces have committed illegal acts, including a number of human rights abuses. Also, many consider the government to be hampered by a deeply embedded culture of political corruption, ineffectiveness caused by a high turnover of leadership at the ministerial level, a lack of taxing resources to adequately fund social programs (education, health and police training) and credible suspicions of connections between the police, army, narco-trafficking syndicates, and other criminal elements within the country.
Guatemala Police with prisoner
Concerns noted in the 2009 Human Rights Report for Guatemala published by the U.S. State Department include:
“the (Guatemalan) government’s failure to investigate and punish unlawful killings committed by members of the security forces; widespread societal violence, including numerous killings; corruption and substantial inadequacies in the police and judicial sectors; police involvement in serious crimes; impunity for criminal activity; harsh and dangerous prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; failure of the judicial system to ensure full and timely investigations and fair trials; failure to protect judicial sector officials, witnesses, and civil society representatives from intimidation; threats and intimidation against, and killings of, journalists and trade unionists; discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination against indigenous communities; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; and ineffective enforcement of labor laws and child labor provisions.”
Violence Against Women and Immigration
Human rights issues in Guatemala are also connected to immigration issues in the U.S. Recently, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded a decision made by the Board of Immigration Appeals that could set a new precedent in the way immigration judges consider asylum requests.
The July 12th ruling recognized that Lesly Yajayra Perdomo, a Medicaid account executive living in Reno, should have her case reviewed to determine whether her status as a woman in Guatemala classifies her as a member of a persecuted social group because of the long-running and increasing violence against women in Guatemala. (For more information about this case please see the article “Guatemalan Women Fleeing Endemic Violence Have Statistics on Their Side.”
Another recent article on the Woman’s Philanthropy website noted that “The United Nations has listed Guatemala as the most dangerous place for women in the Western Hemisphere and one of the worst in the world. In 2009, when it established an international program to fight violence against women, the U.N. placed the program headquarters in Guatemala.”
Human Rights in Guatemala
Education and Human Rights-Guatemala
Human Rights and Education
Education and human rights can be examined from two different points of view: One, education being evaluated within a human rights context, and two, what effect does education have on the promotion and protection of human rights within a society. This section looks at education in Guatemala from both perspectives and argues that education is one of the most powerful and effective ways to promote and protect human rights.
In the Analysis of the Guatemalan Education Sector from a Human Rights-Based Perspective, the German researcher Nina Otto found that “Guatemala has ratified all key international and regional human rights conventions, a large number of which include provisions on the progressive fulfilment of the right to education. It is also a signatory of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which recognizes the right to education but which, as a declaration, is not legally binding. The right to education is also enshrined in the Guatemalan constitution as well as other national laws.”
However, when analyzing Guatemala’s actual effectiveness in carrying out those human rights provisions in regards to education, she found that only 14.5% of all public schools in Guatemala (and virtually none in the rural areas) meet the minimum standards for the following four core elements of an adequate education:
Availability (i.e., functioning schools with adequate classrooms, sanitation facilities, potable water, adequately trained teachers and adequate teaching materials)
Accessibility (i.e., within reasonable reach, non-discriminatory, and affordable)
Acceptability (i.e., Form and substance of education, including curricula and teaching methods are relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality.)
Adaptability (i.e., Education that is flexible so that it can adapt to the needs of changing societies and communities and respond to the needs within their diverse social and cultural settings.)
Another report, the Guatemala Human Rights Fact Sheet published by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, compares Guatemala’s performance in the implementation and promotion of human rights to other Latin American and Caribbean nations. This report expresses grave concerns about Guatemala’s human rights record and goes on to state:
“Programs put in place by various Guatemalan governments since the 1996 Peace Accords to increase health and education access have been constantly undermined by the inadequacy of resources. Guatemala has among the lowest levels of health and education spending relative to GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean, despite steps taken since the 1996 Peace Accords to increase social spending. The Accords also included commitments to expand the tax base so as to generate the additional resources required for increased social spending. Yet Guatemala still has one of the lowest tax bases in the region and among the most generous tax exemptions and fiscal incentives for business. Guatemala’s tax base of 12 percent was below the Central American average of 16 percent in 2006. Also, Guatemala’s main source of income into the public budget — indirect taxation (VAT ) — falls disproportionately on the poor.”
…Safety and security don’t just happen: they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.
Education is seen as a key instrument for promoting social cohesion by endowing people with the necessary knowledge and attitudes to cope with change and adapt to new conditions. The better educated people are, the lower is the risk of losing their job or their attachment to the labor market, their income, their access to basic social rights such as social protection, health, housing, further education, their social networks, and developing a passive –or even negative- attitude to life.
El Yalu classroom
Extensive research in a range of disciplines has been conducted over the past forty years on how better education affects development outcomes and what factors are influential in improving quality. The evidence is clear-cut on the links between good education and a wide range of economic and social development benefits. Better school outcomes – as represented by pupils’ achievement test scores – are closely related to higher income in later life. Empirical work has also demonstrated that high quality schooling improves national economic potential. Strong social benefits are equally significant. It is well known that the acquisition of literacy and numeracy, especially by women, has an impact upon fertility rates, as well as maternal and infant mortality rates. More recently, it has become clear that the cognitive skills required to make informed choices about HIV/AIDS risk and behavior are strongly related to levels of education and literacy. (2005 UNESCO Education For All Global Monitoring Report – The Quality Imperative)
Other research indicates that educational reforms can play an important role in preventing violence against women by increasing school safety, by empowering women through education, and by promoting better attitudes and practices among students with regard to women’s human rights. International studies have reliably shown that women with higher levels of education have a lower risk of being physically or sexually abused. (World Bank Report: Addressing Violence Against Women Within the Education Sector)
On a very personal note, Gustavo Valle, Avivara’s Director of Programs, believes strongly and wholeheartedly that education is an essential problem-solving tool for the people of Guatemala. He has seen how it can provide individuals and communities the skills and attitudes needed to address conflicts rationally, without resorting to violence.
Guatemala Girls Graduating
Despair or Hope?
Historically, Guatemala has clearly not met the educational needs of all its peoples. In addition, the recent global economic downturn combined with a series of natural disasters have drained the government’s resources, thus hampering further efforts to improve education for the most marginalized segments of its population. (2010 UNESCO Report on Education For All: Reaching the Marginalized)
While Avivara’s programs are still relatively small in scope, they are effectively focused on improving educational quality where it is most needed. There is the potential for us to expand our programs, but only if we have help. If you would like to support the work we are doing to improve the human rights situation in Guatemala through the power of education, please visit our Donate to Avivara page to learn how you can make a tax-deductible donation.
Recommendations for Further Reading
Green, L., Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala, Columbia University Press, New York, 1999. This anthropological study of the life of widows in indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala traces the intricate links between the political violence and repression of the recent civil war with the long-term systemic (and ongoing) violence against women connected with class, ethnic and gender inequalities.
Godoy, A.S., Popular Injustice: Violence, Community and Law in Latin America, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2006. This book examines the root causes of vigilante justice in Guatemala and other Latin American countries. It describes the breakdown in the national justice systems (corruption, intimidation, lack of training, etc.) as well the conflict between traditional indigenous methods of punishing criminal behaviors and more universally accepted concepts of individual human rights within an established criminal justice system.
Goldman, F., The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, Grove Press, New York, 2007. Peter Canby of The Nation says of this book, “…his (Goldman’s) novelist’s eye and deep understanding of Guatemalan society takes you inside the death squads, inside the world of political assassination, inside the gangs and prisons; and out among the legion of psychotic, traumatized, unbalanced, underemployed veterans who are the perpetrators of so much of Guatemala’s criminal violence.”
Menchu, R., I, Rigoberta Menchú, an Indian Woman in Guatemala, Verso, London, 1983. This book describes the life of a young indigenous woman in Guatemala, and outlines the hardships, death and suffering experienced by her family as they struggled to survive on subsistence farming and migrant farm work during the period of the Guatemalan Civil War.
Perera, V., Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993. In its review of this book, the New Yorker states, “Perera finds that military terrorism has outlasted the Communist threat; murder and massacre have become the reflexive response to any disagreement, public or private.”